Demand for traveling nurses has slackened since the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic but staffing companies that represent the nurses said the demand remains high with far more openings than nurses to take them.
One the largest company’s providing travel nurses, Aya Healthcare, said that it typically has 8,000 to 12,000 openings for travel nurses but during the worst of the pandemic, the company had 60,000 open requests for travel nurses.
“There’s a massive nursing shortage through the entire country, which we’ve seen get worse,” said Sophia Morris, vice president of account management at Aya Health Care.
Based in Sorrento Valley, Aya had about 45,000 travel nurses in the field as of mid-May, Morris said.
“It’s a moving target all the time,” Morris said.
Based on Aya’s figures, Morris said that travel nurses likely number from 110,000 to 130,000 at any time nationally.
As the job title suggests, travel nurses move from hospital to hospital, supplementing the work of staff nurses, doing everything a staff nurse does, from pediatric care to working in emergency rooms. Many often float from one job to another within a hospital.
As they’re known within the industry, “travelers” typically work on 13-week contracts that can be extended as the need warrants.
“We see all different age categories, men, women, all ages,” Morris said.
During the worst of the pandemic, “We saw a lot of clinicians come out of retirement and go back to become a nurse to go to these hot spots to help,” Morris added. “It’s been a tough couple of years for hospitals and nurses in general.”
Julie Purinton, travel nurse division president of AMN Healthcare, said that the demand for travel nurses rose 194% from 2019 through 2021. She said that the demand for travel nurses has eased but remains about 80% above pre-pandemic levels.
Based in Texas with offices in Carmel Valley, AMN is a health care staffing agency and in 2021 deployed 97,000 health care workers including travel nurses, according to Purinton.
Just as the demand for travel nurses has been high, Purinton said that the number of professionals expressing an interest in becoming a travel nurse has grown as people became more aware of them as a result of the pandemic.
“A lot more people learned about travel nurses and were very grateful for them when they were willing to pick up and go across the country,” Purinton said. “They’re absolutely heroes and I don’t know what we would have done without those individuals willing to go into the hot spots.”
Two travel nurses based in San Diego said that they got into the business because they wanted to work in different environments and gain the varied experience of seeing how different hospitals work.
On temporary assignment at Rady Children’s Hospital, Iowa native Courtney Lee said that she’s hoping to make the transition to being a staff nurse in San Diego.
Lee became a travel nurse four years ago after working in the pediatric intensive care unit at the University of Iowa Children’s Hospital.
“I was just eager to work in other places across the country, kind of just seeing what travel nursing was like,” Lee said. “The best thing I think about travel nursing is you meet so many amazing people and meet lifelong friends.”
As a travel nurse, Lee has worked in Little Rock, Richmond, Dallas, Delaware, Salt Lake City, and at four different hospitals in Los Angeles.
“I decided that San Diego is my favorite,” Lee said. “I’m ready to be a staff nurse. However, I’m thankful for all the opportunities [travel nursing] has given me.”
Having done both, Lee said travel nursing is especially challenging because travel nurses are expected to be ready to work after only two or three days of orientation at their assigned hospital compared to the two or three months staff nurses get.
“You have to be willing to ask for help, willing to ask questions, and you’re going to be expected to float at first. You’re going to be expected to work holidays,” Lee said. “In 2021, I worked on Christmas and then I came home to an empty house that I was renting. There is a side to it that can be tough, but anybody can do it if they know about it ahead of time.”
Malick Krubally became a travel nurse after moving to the U.S. about 10 years ago and in May was working as an internal radiology nurse at Palomar Medical Center in Escondido.
“As someone who is open to challenges, I felt I could do this to broaden my experience and work in different environments,” Krubally said. “I’ve worked with different traveling nurses coming from different parts of the country. It’s a calling. If you love doing it, you would enjoy doing it in almost any setting.”
One downside can be finding a place to stay from city to city, Krubally said.
“Sometimes, you’re living in a room in a house with a family or a roommate and that can come with its own challenges regarding your comfort.”
Like Lee, Krubally said that he would eventually like to become a staff nurse, but not yet. “I plan on continuing to travel for at least a year or two.”
San Diego County hospitals use travel nurses to cover for staff nurses when they’re on vacation, out sick, or off for other reasons. They also use travel nurses to staff up during times of peak demand, as most did during the early stages of the pandemic.
“Hiring travel nurses allows for immediate and temporary support during peak census periods,” said Christine Basiliere, vice president of workforce strategies at Sharp HealthCare. “Also, while we are in the process of hiring more staff nurses, travel nurses help to ensure that our new RN staff is on-boarded and trained appropriate.”
Basiliere said that travel nurses account for 4.5% of Sharp’s nursing staff, which numbered about 6,000 in May.
At UC San Diego Health, travel nurses account for less than 18% of the system’s 3,200 nurses, according to hospital officials.
“We are prepared to use travelers as needed to cover additional needs for nurse staffing during forecasted COVID surges or other emergent issues” UC San Diego Health officials said in a statement.
At Rady Children’s Hospital, travel nurses account for 10% to 15% of the nursing staff at any one time, according to Dana Patrick, director of critical care and pediatric emergency transportation.
Like other hospitals, Rady uses travel nurses to augment its regular nursing staff, but Rady also uses travel nurses as a source for new staff nurses.
“They are a really great way to get new staff into the hospital. It’s almost like we get to try them out and see if we like them,” Patrick said. “It’s a great recruiting tool for us.”
Unlike other San Diego hospitals, Rady had fewer patients than normal during the early stages of the pandemic and had no travel nurses for a while.
Children in the early pandemic weren’t catching COVID and fewer children were catching other respiratory diseases during the COVID lockdown and immediately thereafter as masking requirements were in place, Patrick said.
Scripps Health also recruits staff nurses from traveling nurses who come to work at Scripps, said Eric Cole, senior vice president of human resources.
Scripps has about 4,900 staff nurses and the number travel nurses it hires “varies greatly with our based on patient volume. We utilized travelers extensively during each COVID surge,” Cole said. “Prior to COVID, travelers were used occasionally throughout the year and were more prevalent during flu season when patient volume increased.”
Kaiser Permanente uses travel nurses to augment its hospital nursing staff of 1,700 mostly “during the baby peak months” of June through October, said Steve McClelland, communications manager.
“Flu season is another increased need, which is during the winter months,” McClelland said.